“What in the hell is going on in Madison?”


I asked Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to guest-post on attitudes toward public employees and unions in Wisconsin. She has been conducted extensive qualitative interviews on these and related subjects. Below is her post.


What in the hell is going on in Madison?

I have had more than one friend, family member, and fellow political scientist ask me that in recent days. People seem pretty surprised by all the ruckus in the land of cheese and Packers. Yes, the demonstrations in response to Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to end collective bargaining for most public unions arose quickly, but the sentiments underlying the intense politics of the past few weeks have been brewing for some time.

I grew up in Wisconsin, but my knowledge of the divisions we are seeing comes primarily from a study I’ve been conducting since May of 2007. I sampled 27 communities across the state, which varyied in region, size, partisan leaning, economic background, and racial and ethnic diversity. Within each community I located a group of people who meet regularly in a place I could get access to. The groups are typically morning coffee klatches—groups of people on their way to work or retirees—in diners, restaurants and gas stations. I invited myself into their conversations and listened to the way they make sense of the issues they consider most prominent in their communities. (For more details on my methodology, see here).

What I have learned is that there’s a map that can explain a lot of the current tensions in Wisconsin. It is the map of the state itself. In Wisconsin, there are two main metro regions, one surrounding the largest city and industrial center, Milwaukee, and the other surrounding our state capitol and home of the flagship public university, Madison. The rest of the state is referred to as “outstate.”

For many of the people I’ve talked with in outstate Wisconsin, their understanding of power, values, and resources goes like this (I’m paraphrasing here):

All of our taxpayer dollars get sucked in by Madison, diverted to Milwaukee, and we never see them again. The people in Madison are out of touch with the lives of people in rural and small town Wisconsin, and they are liberals and elitists who for the most part work for the state and have cushy health care and pensions. In addition, they are lazy. They can’t possibly be working as hard as the rest of us who are working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet out here in these communities from which we can see businesses, industry, and farms leaving on a daily basis.

In this framework, public employees, especially public union members, are an easy target. Enterprising politicians, in the midst of a downturned economy can portray public employees as people out of step with hard working Americans. They can tap into the following types of sentiments (again paraphrasing):

They don’t know what it is like to spend upwards of $1200 a month for health care for one’s family. They don’t know what it is like to live in a community that most politicians never visit or listen to. And they certainly don’t know what it is like to have dedicated one’s life to hard work and traditional values.

So the lines of us vs. them are easily drawn: public workers vs. private workers. It appears that Governor Scott Walker is taking advantage of those divisions.

Here are some examples of the conversations I’ve recorded, from a small logging community in northwest Wisconsin. The following is from an early-morning group of men who meet in a gas station on their way to work. On my first visit to this group, in June 2007, I heard quite a few comments about public employees.

KCW: So how about taxes, to raise a sore issue. Do you feel like—with respect to state taxes, do you feel like you pay your fair share up here?
[short pause]
Jim: Who doesn’t think they pay their fair share? We’re all paying too much, the way they waste money. They should have to run the state like you do your own business. If they had to, they’d all go broke. Every government agency.
KCW: What do you see them wasting money on?
Fred: Well we get road jobs out here and they come up 2 years ahead of time, to survey the sucker, and they are getting 50 dollars an hour and extra to resurvey it again, and the next year to resurvey. To me it is a waste of money.
Jim: Too many studies.
Fred: Not enough work.
Jim: Too much bureaucracy in the system.
Fred: They do waste a lot of money on surveying roads.
Sam: All those state employees—we look at ‘em and we don’t think they do much.

Later on in the conversation, I asked about the value of hard work.

KCW: Sometimes people say—survey researchers ask about different occupations and they ask people which one they think works the hardest. Tell me what you think—if you compare a professor, a public school teacher, a waitress, a farmer, and a construction worker, which ones do you think work the hardest?
Sam: The last 3.
Steve: Yeah.
Sam: And for no benefits.
KCW: Yeah? How about those first 2, like—
bq. Sam: I think a school teacher—I know it can be hard. But they got great benefits. Tremendous benefits. And if you’ve been there for 15, 20 years, you’re making 50 grand a year. There’s nobody in town other than them making 50 grand a year. The guys in the [local] mill makes 20 thousand.

Here is how I would characterize this view of the world: “Government employees are lazy. If they do work hard, they get great benefits, so that doesn’t really count as hard work. In other words, they aren’t really like those of us who have struggled to make ends meet, and done so with our hands, ever since we can remember.”

But perhaps what we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks is a complication of this simple ingroup/outgroup distinction. With major, enduring protests come media attention, and with that media attention and the casual banter that arises around it might come a little bit of reconsideration. The pictures of the people at my state capitol include UW-Madison students, who are sometimes written off as radicals, but they also include firefighters, teachers, families, people of many walks of life. It is likely that there is growing recognition that public employees are not just state workers in Madison, but our kids’ teachers, librarians, city clerks, state troopers, etc. They look like ordinary people, too. Are they really the enemy?

Those possibilities are speculation on my part. What little reliable polling there has been so far in Wisconsin since the protests began doesn’t allow us to gauge change, but does suggest that for the moment, opinion is not all that bent against public employee unions, and is perhaps leaning against Governor Walker. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner polling data for the AFL-CIO, released February 21st, showed 49% unfavorable for Walker, and 62% favorable for public employees, and 53% favorable for unions (margin of error of +/- 4.0 percentage points). A pro-union poll (though automated and conducted on one day, February 17th) showed 51.9% disapproving of Walker’s plan (margin of error of +/- 2.0 percentage points).

What this data says to me is that as with any ingroup/outgroup distinction, the lines of division are not inevitable. They can be replaced with other divisions, depending on the context. Maybe for some, the protests have drawn attention away from the public vs. private employees distinction toward the battle lines of Governor Walker vs. the people.

We know predispositions matter a lot, though, so if the Madison vs. the rest of the state map plays heavily in your understanding of the world, you likely see the protests and the resulting public school cancellations as yet another sign of indulgent, spoiled public workers, who just don’t get it.

8 Responses to “What in the hell is going on in Madison?”

  1. Greg Sanders March 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Prof. Walsh,

    I’m a bit curious about the reality behind the perceptions. Do you know What’s the population breakdown like for Madison and Milwaukee vs. Outstate. The poll numbers turning against Gov. Walker may in part just be a matter of opinion in the cities and suburbs rather than the outstate.

    Also which way do the tax dollars actually flow? I’m guessing that the rural areas without many high paying jobs are getting more in state spending than they’re paying in taxes. Admittedly they might be getting that money back in the form of ineffective road crews.

  2. Sara Goldrick-Rab March 1, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Kathy, Your work is wonderful. Tell us, what are the implications of UW-Madison’s pending spin off into orbit?


  3. Mark Stover March 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Thank you for your work. Being able to bridge the experiences of all the people you talked with is really important. One thing is clear: anyone who works for a living – public or private, Madison or Hatley – has more in common with each other than those who live off their investments. The middle class – that broad swath – all share common struggles and dreams. We should not let self-serving politicians take advantage of a perceived difference among middle class members only because of where we live or what we do for a living.

    By the way, I grew up in Minnesota where the rural-metropolitan distinction is even more acute than it is in Wisconsin. It used to be that the non-metro parts of the state were referred to as “outstate.” But in the last 15 years or so, the non-metro areas are now referred to as “greater Minnesota.” Maybe we should adopt a similar nomenclature in Wisconsin.

  4. Kathy Cramer Walsh March 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, everybody. Greg, regarding the empirical evidence for the flow of tax dollars, the picture is mixed. Using the 2002 Census of Government as data, on a per capita basis, in Wisconsin rural residents do not receive fewer federal tax allocations than urban residents, and actually receive more state tax dollars.

    With respect to the balance of population in the state (Madison/Milwaukee compared to outstate), I just want to clarify that there is not a perfect correspondence between where one lives and support for Walker (or Republicans more generally). Parts of rural Wisconsin have been Democratic for decades. (Booth Fowler’ “Wisconsin Votes” is a great resource on this.)

    With respect to the proposed public authority status for UW-Madison, I imagine that going this route will in the short term exacerbate the perception that those of us at the flagship school are elitist and out of touch with the rest of the state.

  5. Osori March 1, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    Wonderful research, though I wonder if you could get us a bit beyond what most of us folk poli. scientists could have told you before you did the hard work “verifying” what a lot of us know.

    It’s quite clear that there is a very strong “heartland elitism” that looks down on intellectual labor of all sorts. In some ways, it mirrors the sentiments of Maoism, with it’s extreme distrust and denigration of intellectuals as parasites who are “out of touch with the masses.”

    What’s ironic, and actually quite morally repugnant, is that the same folk who accuse the urban intellectuals of being elitist are in fact the ones who have no shame in proclaiming their superiority and open hostility to others not like them. At least the worst of the urban intellectuals are only guilty of looking down on the intellect of the “rubes” – they never go so far as to say they are “lazy” which is really quite a slur. The extent of this disdain is quite evident throughout any discussion of the current budget debate, where even police and firemen are now subject to being attacked as freeloaders, simply because they work for the government. The urban/rural split has seemingly been intensified by a viral Ayn Randian assault on any and all not-for-profit endeavors.

    Pointing this out in plain English is quite politically incorrect I gather, as we are all supposed to marvel as the wisdom of the “good folk” who populate the rural heartland. But for those of us who have lived were raised in the metro areas but have traveled or now live “out state,” this reality is always close to home. We are hated by many of our fellow Wisconsinites, not in person, of course, but in the abstract. And it is that abstract hate that is now leading to the immiseration of our commonwealth – the same commonwealth that our rural brothers and sisters also rely on, but would rather destroy just to see the lazy, pointy headed, freeloaders get theirs.

  6. K March 1, 2011 at 11:43 pm #

    This is interesting to me, particularly, as both sides of my family have been in Wisconsin since the mid-19th century, and have trickled down (no pun intended) from da Nort. I – the lucky baby of the family – was born and raised in Madison. (And by the way, even though my parents are still working class, the job security grew as the trail headed south.)

    I consider myself as a bit of an expert on this trend, and it’s something I find myself constantly explaining to people in Dane County – many people of whom are not from the state, or even country. People who are not from here often times have a hard time understanding why the voting trends coming from “the rest of the state”currently exist, especially when it appears that the votes are being cast by those among the working class, but yet which are in favor of policies and trends that are not being made in the best interests of the working class. I then have to explain how emotions, media, and ill-conceived notions play a large role in Wisconsin, particularly in viewing Madison’s – a.k.a, liberal – politics. And yes, there is “waste” in government, but there is waste in any office, private or not: a different issue to be grappled with in a different manner.

    My biggest frustration in all of this is that I do not see the UW administration taking direct action in educating the state on what goes on at UW, or the benefits of a strong education in general, and, furthermore, the benefits that the THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of job that the UW provides to not only the lives of people across Wisconsin (by means of research), but to our state in general ($$$ spent). Most people, even many here in Madison, have no idea what goes on behind the ivy towers (including my own family). But, I do not see any real outreach being done on behalf of the UW. I realize they feel that they do outreach (The Wisconsin Idea, The Extension, etc.), but unless a person goes to graduate school with an “involved” program, or is directly involved with these outreach efforts, they will not have the experience to understand the value in this system, or education.

    How to do it? That would take a bit of discussion, but I fear Wisconsin will kick itself in the keister – good and hard – if some initiative is not taken in helping those outside of academia to understand the value that comes with hosting a school of UW’s importance. Furthermore, I feel that a conniving, selfish force has identified this divide, and is using it to their own advantage (no, I’m not talking Walker, believe me and the people that work for him, he’s not smart enough; he’s just simply joined the gravy train). More connections need to be made, and it needs to start with us.

  7. Greg Sanders March 2, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    Thanks for the response professor. My guess would have been wrong on the voting habits of parts of rural Wisconsin, sounds like I could learn a fair amount from Booth Fowler’s work as well.

    And thanks again for your informative post.

  8. Alex Williams March 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    “Wonderful research, though I wonder if you could get us a bit beyond what most of us folk poli. scientists could have told you before you did the hard work ‘verifying’ what a lot of us know.”

    Osori: Not all “folk science” is wrong, but some of it is. After an experiment, it’s often tempting to say about the results, “Well, that’s just common sense.”

    If, for example, we were social psychologists studying romantic relationships, we might have two competing hypotheses: one that says “opposites attract,” another that says “birds of a feather flock together.” If the research ends up supporting (as it actually does) that people who are similar are more attracted to each other than people who are dissimilar, people will claim it’s common sense. Notice, though, that no matter which way the evidence went, people could have declared it a win for common sense!